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Inspiration: Waterfalls vs. Locks and Dams

 

Today’s guest post is from Lt Col Mark Valentine, an Air Force officer with a background in fighter aviation and strategic planning, a leader I’ve had the pleasure of knowing since last year. He holds a master of arts in US National Security Policy from Georgetown University, and a bachelor of science in Astronautical Engineering from the US Air Force Academy. We often hear that government/military needs to learn from industry. Mark is an example of the contrary. I’ve learned a lot from him, as has everyone he’s come in contact with at Microsoft. Yet he states that he learns something new about leadership every day; he demonstrates that in his post below. Follow him on twitter at @drifterval.

Over my 19-year military career, the last year of which has been spent with the Microsoft Corporation as a Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellow, I have often been asked to speak on the topic of leadership and inspiration to audiences spanning the military, business and youth communities. For the majority of these discussions, I have focused on the central role leaders play in inspiring their followers to recognize their potential and use it to move their organizations forward. In rote memory fashion, I have preached this formulation of leadership as if leaders were a font of inspiration and responsible for delivering it to their followers waterfall style. As I mature, however, I am increasingly aware that this understanding of the leadership-inspiration nexus is severely limited in its ability to accurately explain the concept (full disclosure: my wife would argue that “mature” is a state to which I have yet to attain.)

As I grow into different leadership roles it is increasingly clear to me that inspiration is not a commodity that flows in a single direction from leaders to followers. Indeed, if anything, I now understand that inspiration often flows uphill from team members to leaders – more like a series of locks and dams on a river. Therefore our old paradigm of the glowing leader waltzing into a room and bestowing inspiration on his or her followers has followed the same anachronistic path as the gold watch and defined-benefit retirement plan after 30-years of service at a single company. More likely then, is an understanding that great leaders often receive their inspiration from team members. From this position, leaders act as repositories of that inspirational energy where they cultivate it, add to it, and ultimately recycle it back to the team from which it was loaned at the appropriate time. I believe this is the foundation of what Jim Collins described as “level 5 leadership” in his treatise on successful corporations in Good to Great.

As someone who has spent their entire adult life in public service, the opportunity to study innovation, efficiency, and change management in the rapidly evolving private sector has been a fabulous experience. Curiously however, the greatest personal lesson I will take back to my military duties when I return this fall has nothing to do with translating “best business practices” to the public domain. In fact, the central lesson I take from this experience is that leaders come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, but the one thing they share is their ability to seize inspiration from those with whom they work. Therefore, as I think about the group of Airmen I will return to lead, I reflect on their dedication, their self-sacrifice, their “can-do” attitude, and their excellence in planning and execution. In short, I am inspired by their service which gives meaning to my role as a leader. I hope to nurture their inspirational energy – and give it back when they need it.

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